Why Do I Write About America?
A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a reader, asking whether I have ever lived in the United States, and if not, then why a Canadian who lives in Korea writes so frequently about American politics and society. I get this line of inquiry every so often, usually from people who have just recently discovered my writing, and are trying to figure out the perspective of the writer. Since this is the morning of July 4th here in Korea, I guess today is as good a day as any to share a slightly edited version of my answer to that kind reader’s questions with all of you, and especially with my American readers, who comprise the majority of Limbo’s visitors.
Have I ever lived in the U.S.? No. Years ago, I would have answered “Unfortunately, no.” Gradually, that changed to “As a matter of fact, no.” These days, it’s just “No.” I fear that in a few years it will be “Luckily, no.”
I am Canadian by passport, though currently living in self-imposed exile. I write about Canada almost exclusively when I am feeling depressed, which is relatively rare. As for why I write so much about American politics, perhaps the answer would be self-explanatory if you were not an American yourself. You might, on the other hand, find it even stranger that for several years, I wrote almost exclusively for “American Thinker.”
At this moment in world history, the fate of the human race is primarily dependent on the fate of America. To the extent that what we call Western civilization can be broken down into political eras — for example, the seminal Greek era (which technically predates our “East-West” distinction), the Roman era, the Church era, the British era — there is no doubt that we are currently living in the American era, which is to say that when the political history of this period is finally written, its driving question will be, “What was the condition and trajectory of mankind with regard to freedom, wisdom, and the structures of civil society during that age when America was the most powerful and influential nation in the civilized world?” Other nations or “cultural” forces have played major roles in the development of Western history, of course, and continue to do so; for example, I personally think Germany is still the dominant intellectual influence in the modern world, as it has been for two centuries, to disastrous effect. But if we are trying to define the force which ultimately determines the direction and final outcome of humanity during any given historical period, from a practical political perspective — the force that will do the most to set the stage for whatever “comes next” — then we must clearly understand ourselves to be living through the American moment.
Therefore, anyone concerned about civilizational issues, as I am, naturally feels compelled to focus, at this moment, on the fate of the United States. There is nothing so strange about that, from a non-American point of view, although some Americans wonder why outsiders should care, let alone write, about American electoral politics, or even whether it is “right” for them to do so. It is quite right to do so, just as it would be appropriate for someone interested in Baroque music to focus extensively on the study of Bach; and by contrast, we would think a musicologist very odd who claimed to be a specialist in the Baroque period, but had little interest in, or knowledge of, Bach.
It is interesting to note that the best and most influential book of political philosophy ever written about the United States was written by a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who only traveled the country for a few months in his twenties, and of course lacked the vast resources of insight and information provided by subsequent literature, easy global travel, the internet, e-mail, television and radio, etc. And in more recent times, probably the most serious philosophical defense of America’s position and righteousness in the Cold War — during a time when most intellectuals, including American intellectuals, were playing moral relativist games — was written by yet another Frenchman, Jean-François Revel. Now, while I’m not a Frenchman, my mother is French-Canadian, so I think I too have the right to make the examination and defense of the idea of America my special concern as well!
Furthermore, I always remember the words of an American reader from my early days of political writing, a Navy veteran and staunch individualist in his late seventies, who told me that since America is more an idea than a geographical location, I, as a defender of individual liberty and of the principles of self-determination and limited government, was in fact more truly American than many people who were born and raised within her boundaries — “a spiritual American,” as he put it.
In any case, it would be impossible to write about the meaning and trajectory of America (and hence the civilized world) without discussing the political scene, which is a symptom or surface manifestation of deeper “cultural” issues, and also affects the future direction of the society. And at this moment, sadly, that means talking about Donald Trump, and more importantly his ardent followers, precisely because they are “ardent followers,” which is a very un-American political stance if you stop to think about it. It’s one thing to admire and support a political leader, but quite another to be a follower or adherent, the sort of person who is prepared to excuse and bend to accommodate absolutely anything the leader does, regardless of one’s previous beliefs and declared principles. That is a mentality more suited to tyranny or demagoguery, and entirely ill-suited to a self-governing republic.
This latter phenomenon is very significant, and deserving of a great deal of attention. America has undergone a radical shift in its political psychology in recent decades, a shift which is antithetical, as well as harmful, to the nation’s foundations. One could hardly write about this American moment in world history without observing this shift, and thinking seriously about it.
And so today, July 4th, Donald Trump is parading tanks and jets in Washington as an ego-gratifying display of his personal glory and greatness. America, a nation founded on the principles of limited government and individual sovereignty — and more specifically, on the philosophical premise that human society is best when the enthusiastic pageantry and passion that foster unthinking collectivism are weakened in favor of the less colorful restraint of public power and emotionalism that fosters rational individualism, private productivity, self-reliance, and communities that take care of their own — is being encouraged to bend a knee and meekly beg for the beneficent outstretched hand of Father State to save her from her troubles and define her life’s meaning and purpose. Thus, millions of Americans will be encouraged, and will happily agree, to shout “Hail, Trump — oh, and also America!” today, as though a passing politician may be conflated with the national idea, which is in itself a profoundly un-American notion.
This is sad and reprehensible, particularly as the cheers and awestruck jingoism will be coming from people whom one might reasonably have thought, until thirty months ago, could be America’s best hope of survival, or even, if you were an optimist, revival.
Oh, well, Happy Independence Day to my American readers and friends, who can still remember what this day was supposed to commemorate.